North Shore of Lake Union
Old Gas Plant Structures
View of Downtown Seattle and Lake Union
Kite Flying Hill
A Note for Tourists
Gas Works Park is often mentioned as a place to go when visiting Seattle. However, it ends up disappointing a lot of people because, even though it’s unique and has a great view, it’s still essentially just a big grassy park, not a tourist destination. Also, the park isn’t close to most typical tourist activities, which is a factor for those with little time.
My recommendation for out-of-towners, especially those with limited transportation and/or time, is to only put the park on your sightseeing agenda if you have a pre-existing interest in visiting the park. For those who see it on a list of places to go and add it as a last minute idea, you’ll probably be happiest going only if it fits in with plans to see other sites also on the north side of the Ship Canal, or if you have plenty of time to kill and your own transportation.
Gas Works Park is the former site of the Seattle Gas Light Company’s gasification plant which operated from 1906 to 1956. The plant originally produced gas from coal, but switched to using oil in 1937 due to the high costs of the coal operation.
The plant started by supplying gas for lighting to Seattle, Renton, Kent, and Tukwila. Eventually the gas was also used for cooking, refrigeration, and heating. The plant shut down operations in 1956 when Seattle switched to natural gas.
After gasification ended there were competing interests for the highly desirable piece of land. Some wanted to develop it and others wanted to create a city park. The city park people won, but then another controversy emerged.
Seattle landscape architect Richard Haag had a unique vision for the future park. He wanted to keep many of the gasification plant’s structures and build a park around them in order to preserve part of the city’s industrial history.
Many people were understandably horrified at the idea of retaining ugly plant structures because parks were traditionally places of aesthetic nature-oriented beauty. Haag had to work hard to drum up public support for what he envisioned, but he eventually prevailed. Gas Works Park opened to the public in 1975 and today it’s one of Seattle’s most-used parks.
While many gasification plant complex structures were demolished, the park retains several key features. The cement frames near the east park entrance are what remain of a train trestle that was used to offload coal into giant hoppers. The nearby picnic shed was the boiler house and the building next to it contains remnants of the pumps and compressors. The hill was created by piling up tons of the rubble from old foundations and covered over with topsoil. The lake viewpoint (the prow) looks like it was built as a park feature, but it was originally where coal was offloaded from boats.
Contamination was an obvious hurdle with turning a polluted industrial site into a safely useable public park. Most of the decontamination was done with bio-phyto-remediation, which used the microbes from sewage to clean the soil. Since then additional decontamination has been done by scraping a layer of soil off the hill and replacing it with clean dirt.
Access to the water from the park is prohibited due to the surrounding lake bottom still being contaminated. Future plans include adding a layer of sand and charcoal to the lake bed so that hand carry boat launching and swimming can be added as park activities.
The Seattle gasification plant is the only one that still exists in the US, and Gas Works Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. The park was one of the first of its kind in the world, building a park around industrial structures rather than replacing them, and has inspired the creation of other such parks in many countries.
It makes sense that Seattle would take the unusual and quirky route, rather than just sticking to the tried and true traditional methods and designs. Seattle thrives on marching to its own drummer, which is part of what gives the city its charm, both as a place to live and a place to visit.
Before I get into the preview I want to discuss accessibility at Gas Works Park. This park is very borderline for meeting my accessibility criteria when choosing which parks to preview. My criteria are: easy parking, points of interest not too far from parking, mostly level walking paths, and conveniently placed benches/tables.
If you are in a wheelchair or use a scooter you’re mostly okay at Gas Works. Only the machinery shed is inaccessible due to steps. Though the paths up to the hilltop are too steep without a very strong pusher.
Where Gas Works is sorely lacking is in the bench department. The park desperately needs benches scattered along the lengthy walking paths and at the lakeside. The only normal seating available in the entire park is at the tables in the picnic area (with no view), and two benches partway up the south side of the hill. That’s it. It’s a big park, covering over twenty acres.
There is a large tiered cement slab at the lake viewpoint that the young and the limber use for sitting. But the tiers are so low to the ground that those most in need of a place to sit due to injury, illness, or age will likely find them unusable because standing back up might be impossible.
The design of Gas Works Park is such that visitors are expected to either sit on the lawns or remain on their feet the entire time. I can’t fathom why this is because it’s an important city park with great views. But despite its importance and attractions, those on foot with significant mobility issues won’t find Gas Works very welcoming.
Gas Works is a large open park located on a point of land on the north shore of Lake Union. It consists of huge lawn meadows, a hill, and many structures left over from the gas plant which once operated here.
From the park you get views of Lake Union, the Seattle skyline, Ship Canal Bridge, Aurora Bridge, Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, and houseboats.
If you enjoy watching boats this is a great place to go. You’ll see everything from kayaks, to tour vessels, to yachts. On Tuesday evenings in summer you can watch sailboats participating in the Duck Dodge. You can also watch float planes taking off and landing.
Since the park is completely open and faces south the midday light here can be quite harsh (as you can see in my photos below). If you’re going specifically for the view of downtown or photography purposes I strongly recommend early morning or late afternoon, especially in winter.
There is some shade available in the picnic shed and near trees around the park edges, but this is primarily a park for sun worshippers. If you enjoy basking, bring a blanket or towel, because there is plenty of room for you here. (Without a blanket you might end up rolling around in goose poop.)
For those of us who live in Seattle because we are heat wimps, it’s a great place to soak up some needed vitamin D on sunny days in winter, but it’s much too much of a good thing on hot days in summer.
With the vast open areas at Gas Works this is a perfect park for lawn picnics, playing Frisbee, flying kites, or kicking a ball around.
There are three paths into the park on the south side of the parking lot. The west path will take you directly to the hill. The middle path brings you out into a large lawn area. The east path brings you first to the bathrooms, picnic area, and machine shed, and then eventually to the lake viewpoint.
To the west of the parking lot is an additional very large lawn area.
We’ll start our tour using the east paved path from the parking lot. Not too far into the park you will see a row of cement frames on your right. This is one of those Seattle spots where everyone takes the same exact photo (looking down the middle from the end) so if you have a camera with you, you might as well too.
The first building on your left is the bathrooms.
Beyond the bathrooms are two giant sheds. An overhang on the north side of the first one covers a sheltered picnic area. Next to the covered tables is an open courtyard with more picnic tables. A few steps lead down to the picnic area. If you are in a wheelchair you can avoid the steps by taking a path over lawn and past some trees on the north side of the picnic courtyard and you’ll come to a level entrance.
The huge sheds house large pieces of machinery that once operated the gas plant. They have been painted bright colors and make for some unique photographic opportunities.
For quite some time the sheds were in use as an encampment by homeless people, complete with tarp shelters. Online reviews recommended that park visitors stay out as the people living here were very territorial. On my visit in early April this year the sheds had been cleaned out and park goers were free to wander around unimpeded. I’m only mentioning this because I can’t predict what the situation will be in the future.
On the south side of the sheds is the children’s playground. On my visit it was fenced off and torn up for a complete renovation. Construction should be completed sometime in late spring or early summer of 2017. (Update: Construction dates changed to January – June 2018.)
On the west side of the path, across from the sheds, are some tall free-standing metal structures and large pipes left over from the gas plant. In between them is a paved path that heads west to the hill.
If you stay on the original path and keep going south towards the lake there will be a large lawn area on your left and a view of the Ship Canal Bridge. To your right, on the south side of the towers, is an old valve wheel sticking up from the ground which serves as a pretty good makeshift stool if you need to rest on your way to and from the lake.
A bit ahead on your right are the largest remaining gas plant structures at the park. They are huge and fenced off from the public due to safety concerns. (At least one person has died from falling while climbing and the soil is still contaminated.) A dirt path goes around the fence perimeter for those wanting a closer look from all sides.
Further south, past the main gasworks, the path ends at the brick-paved viewpoint platform. From here you can see all of Lake Union, the Seattle skyline, including the Space Needle, Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, the Ship Canal Bridge, and the Aurora Bridge. The viewpoint also has a lower level reached via stairs.
From the lake viewpoint there is a paved path to the hill in case you skipped the paths from the parking lot and machine sheds. The top of the hill provides very nice views and is popular with kite flyers when the wind is good. An art installation at the top is a giant sundial that works when someone stands in the middle to act as the gnomon.
While the hill isn’t enormous, its sides are still very steep. The winding path to the hilltop on the south side is a bit more gradual, and there are two view benches on the way up. The path up the north side of the hill is a bit steeper and uses switchbacks.
If you like large sunny open spaces with lots of room to spread out, Gas Works Park is the place for you. If you are into history or the design of public spaces, you’ll probably find this an interesting park to visit. If your goal is to take photos of Seattle from as many different viewpoints as you can find, you’ll likely want to come here at least once. For people who just want to sit on a pleasant park bench to enjoy a view, people watch, or read a book, you’ll want to go elsewhere.
Things to Know
6am – 10pm
Picnic tables under shed and in uncovered courtyard next to it.
Low cement tiers at viewpoint.
Two benches partway up south side of the hill.
Near the picnic and machine sheds on the east entrance path.
Note: Renovation of the bathrooms is currently planned for late 2017 and they will be closed to the public. Construction is anticipated to start in October and end in December. You can check this page for updates if you’re planning a park visit in that time frame. (Update: construction dates changed. Work now anticipated to be between September and December 2018.)
Handicap spaces are located near the entrance paths.
The parking lot is good-sized, but because the park is very popular it’s not unusual to find it near capacity in nice weather, even on weekdays.
On summer weekends parking can be difficult. Free street parking is available on the north side of Northlake Way for overflow, but it can fill up also. Some street parking is also available in the nearby neighborhood if you don’t mind walking a ways.
On busy days the situation is helped by the fact that a lot of visitors only stay long enough to take a quick tour and snap a few photos. So if you’re patient, spots regularly open up even when the lot is full.
Gas Works is one of Seattle’s most-used parks. Its unique design and features, views, and large open areas attract locals, university students, people from the greater Seattle area, and tourists.
Sunny days at any time of year can be busy, but especially so in summer. This is not a park to visit if you want to get away from it all. If you love people watching it’s a great spot for it.
Bridges, boats, industrial structures, Seattle skyline.
Best light: early morning and late afternoon. Summer is best for skyline photos due to the low angle of the sun in winter.
4th of July Fireworks